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  Priest Lost Post after Overnight Kid Outing

By Nena Baker
Tucson Citizen
May 6, 2002

The Rev. Steven Stencil supposedly went on sabbatical in February 2001, but in fact he was removed for violating a ban against overnight contact with minors.

By NENA BAKER

The Arizona Republic

and BLAKE MORLOCK

CORRECTION (5/8/02)

- An article Monday incorrectly gave the address of St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church. The church is at 2727 W. Tangerine Road.

What happened to Father Steve?

Catholics at the Northwest Side parish he founded are slowly discovering the answer.

The Rev. Steven Stencil did not, as parishioners at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church were told, go on sabbatical in February 2001.

Rather, Stencil was stripped of his ministerial duties by Bishop Manuel Moreno for violating a diocese policy forbidding clerics from being in the company of minors overnight, diocese officials said.

About a year earlier, according to court filings, a 17-year-old boy complained that Stencil had molested him, and the diocese launched an internal investigation that dismissed the priest's actions as accidental.

Assistant Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer said diocese officials told her office of Stencil's alleged problems. However, the diocese did so a year after suspending Stencil and after testimony by a church official about Stencil appeared in a court file. Mayer said the County Attorney's Office is looking into the matter.

Diocese officials confirm that parishioners at St. Mark's, 2727 W. Tangerine Road, were not told of his suspension.

The diocese has not explained the reason for Stencil's removal because its policy does not allow it to do so, said diocese spokesman Fred Allison.

Current church policy, which is under review, does not "address communications to the parish in the event that priests, deacons or lay employees were removed," Allison said.

As reports of the reason for Stencil's departure surface, parishioners are standing by their priest and friend.

Michael H. Utter, 22, said he has known Stencil for eight years and does not believe the 50-year-old priest did anything inappropriate with children.

"It's ludicrous. I've known the guy for years, and I've seen him around other kids," Utter said. "That would be the last thing he'd ever do."

Stencil could not be reached for comment. Allison refused to say where Stencil went after leaving St. Mark's.

Sheryl Kardell, who runs religious education at the church, also supported Stencil.

"I don't think it's possible," Kardell said of the allegation that Stencil acted inappropriately with a child. "There's a lot of people who see the opportunity to make money off these kinds of claims."

Diocese policies regarding notification of parishioners when priests are removed are under review by a committee that includes University of Arizona President Peter Likins and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.

Among the policies the committee is expected to address, Allison said, is when and how to inform parishioners if abuse claims are leveled against a church employee.

St. Mark's parishioners will soon get the chance to talk with diocese leaders about why Stencil left St. Mark's.

The Rev. Liam Leahy told parishioners after Mass yesterday that diocese officials would meet with the parish "as soon as possible" to discuss Stencil.

Leahy, who replaced Stencil as pastor, read from a prepared statement at the end of Mass:

"As some of you may be aware, our founding pastor is being mentioned in the news media."

The chapel was crowded with families of children who were receiving their first communion yesterday, and Leahy did not explain the substance of the allegations Stencil faced.

Leahy then asked parishioners to "reserve judgment on any matters raised by the news media, keeping in mind the rights to privacy and fairness."

Stencil, who led the diocese's program for youths interested in the seminary from 1986 to 1994, was the founding pastor of St. Mark's. He helped shepherd its construction amid complications from regulations protecting the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

Parishioner Fred Fox, who spearheaded the construction and worked closely with Stencil, said he was surprised to hear about Stencil's alleged problems.

"As far as I knew, he was a real good guy to work with," Fox said. "He's always been real good to us."

The Catholic Diocese of Tucson said that in February it turned over to the county prosecutor the names of any priests known to have been the subject of sexual-abuse complaints in the past.

In addition, the Tucson Diocese is rewriting its sexual-abuse policies in the aftermath of recent civil court settlements, estimated to total at least $15 million. Plaintiffs in the suits claimed church officials protected priests who abused 10 boys in the '60s and '70s.

The diocese also has changed its policy so that any new complaint will be referred to outside authorities immediately, officials said.

The diocese's sexual-abuse policy-review committee could announce its proposed policy changes by mid-June, when U.S. bishops will meet in Dallas to discuss the problem on a national scale.

Moreno has said he will enact whatever the review committee recommends.

Changes are expected, said the Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, Tucson's coadjutor bishop.

"The church is being pushed and challenged to act in a different way," Kicanas said. "We're in an important position where we can be an example to other institutions."

The diocese, Kicanas said, is committed to protecting children from abuse, but also must strike a balance that protects the rights of its employees.

"In this country, our guiding principal is innocent until proven guilty," Kicanas said. "There is a human concern for protecting a person's good name."

Dr. Jose Santiago, a psychiatrist and chairman of the Tucson Diocese's sexual-abuse policy-review committee, said the committee takes "the vulnerability of minors very seriously and wants to make sure they are protected."

He expects the committee will extensively rewrite the diocese's policy, including recommending that new screening procedures be put in place to help prevent the hiring of employees or priests at high risk of abusing children.

Allison, the diocese spokesman, testified in a court deposition that he and another church official interviewed the boy who claimed Stencil molested him after the boy informed officials at his parish about Stencil's behavior.

In his deposition, Allison testified that he recalled the youth telling him that Stencil grabbed him in the crotch and squeezed his penis in a swimming pool. Allison also recalled, in response to questioning, that the youth reported Stencil asked him questions about sex during private confessions and that Stencil placed his hand on the boy's thigh during those confessions.

After officials' first interview with the boy, Allison said he was instructed to telephone the boy and ask him if what Stencil did in the swimming pool could have been accidental or unintentional, according to Allison's deposition. The boy said it could have been, and the matter was dropped.

Mayer, the assistant Pima County attorney, said failure to report a claim of child sex abuse is a misdemeanor. But she said state law requires that a charge be brought within one year of the violation.

Contact: bmorlock@tucsoncitizen.com

 
 

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